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Never Trumpers and GOP skeptics bargain with Trump - and themselves

WASHINGTON — Ten months ago, Doug Heye was one of the Beltway Republicans doing their best to warn the party against getting into bed with Donald Trump — a man, he wrote in an op-ed, who would "cause greater instability throughout the world at a time when the world looks to America for leadership."

"The emperor doesn't have any clothes," the veteran Capitol Hill spokesman later declared on MSNBC. "There's no part of a Trump candidacy that I don't see as being a disaster for Republicans."

And now?

"Well, there actually have been a number of positive signs," Heye said in a phone interview just days after Trump's surprise victory. There was that gracious acceptance speech, Heye noted. Plus, that seemingly stable meeting with President Obama. And "the fact that they took down the Muslim ban from the website was heartening to me," he added.

Uh, Doug. You know, the Trump team put that proposal right back up on its site hours later.

"Oh, I didn't realize that," Heye said. "But the fact that it even got deleted is heartening to me."

If establishment Republicans are going through the stages of grief, it appears they've reached the bargaining stage. All over town, erstwhile critics — who once described Trump as a betrayer of conservative values and an agent of chaos — are now, at least publicly, grasping for signs that maybe he won't be so bad after all.

Perhaps, they say, conservatives will finally get some quality judges on the Supreme Court? Maybe Trump will focus more on unraveling Obamacare than on deporting 11 million people living in this country illegally or registering Muslims into a database? Maybe now that he's president, they say, Trump will finally pivot to acting presidential?

So many tea leaves floating around this week. You can just pick and choose the ones you like.

That seems to be the new approach of Sen. Lindsey Graham — one of Trump's fiercest Republican critics during the campaign. When Trump announced Sunday that Steve Bannon, the former chief executive of the website Breitbart —a favorite periodical of white supremacists, known for taking aim at blacks, women, Muslims and Jews - would serve as his chief White House strategist, the senator from South Carolina responded only to the other half of the day's news:

"Congrats to @realDonaldTrump for outstanding choice of @Reince (Priebus) to be Chief of Staff," tweeted Graham, about the appointment of the Republican National Committee chair. "This shows me he is serious about governing."

Wishful thinking has become our new national pastime, and because no one really knows what a Trump presidency will look like, it's possible for everyone to hold out hope.

Elected Democrats are looking to the possibility of an infrastructure bill as a silver lining, while liberal commentators such as Nicholas Kristof ask readers to "give President-elect Trump a chance."

Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), the capital's most enduring GOP Never Trumper, is crossing his fingers that the president might work at "ending cronyism." Super-lobbyist Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, has offered up his swamp-draining services.

"This past week has reinforced that a President-elect Trump has the capacity to rise above the campaign mudslinging," said Lott's former spokesman, Ron Bonjean, now a PR strategist who does not count himself as a "skeptical" Republican. "I've always believed that if he can bring in a team around him of solid people and get away from the late-night Twitter accounts, this could be OK."

As it happened, Bonjean uttered these optimistic thoughts to a reporter after Trump issued a tweet blaming post-election demonstrations on "professional protesters" supposedly incited by the media but before his most recent Twitter rant about how the New York Times is supposedly failing. (It's doing quite well, actually.)

Erick Erickson, a conservative pundit who served as an outspoken critic of Trump from the right, is pushing back against what he sees as a lot of "crying wolf" about the president-elect. So he says he's giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. Even about controversial decisions such as hiring Bannon.

"If Obama got (Valerie) Jarrett, Trump can have Bannon," he wrote for the Resurgent. "And when the alt-right goes marching through Washington or people start trying to round up Jews because of it, then we can raise the issue and provide shelter to those in need. But there is no guarantee that will happen."

("No guarantee." Whew.)

Heye maintained that he doesn't see his role or his stance changing all that much from before the election: If Trump does something good, he'll compliment him for it, he said. If Trump reverts to his campaign behavior, he'll call him out.

"I never really called myself a Never Trump person," he said. "I just said I'm not voting for the guy."

Somehow, though, amid the rubble, a dwindling number of unwavering Trump skeptics on the right still live and breathe.

"Winning the election doesn't change my opinion about him," said Ben Howe, an editor at the conservative website RedState. "I've said from the beginning that he is a sociopath, that he is unstable and dangerous, that his views on nuclear proliferation are dangerous and that he will put people in positions to influence him that are dangerous. So far, he hasn't done anything to convince me otherwise."

Howe said he's not surprised that so many people have traded in their skepticism for optimism. He realizes that some people believe it is their patriotic duty to show their support for the president and that others are just so tired of the chaos of the campaign that they are desperate to make things seem normal again.

And he understands that some critics believe they owe the unpredictable businessman the benefit of the doubt. He just doesn't see it that way.

"It's a lot of pretending like this is an innocent-until-proven-guilty type of situation," Howe said. "The problem is, the campaign was the trial. I've seen the evidence, and I've made a decision based on that."

There is, however, one possibility that Howe won't rule out.

"The only thing I'm open to now is that I could be wrong," he said. "I'm fine being wrong. Being wrong would be great."